Many people have heard the name Mae West, but very few people know much about her outside of her blonde bombshell image and her classic one-liners like, “Come up and see me sometime.”
Beneath the platinum blonde hair and super-tweezed eyebrows, did you have any idea that Mae was a Hollywood pioneer, one of the first unconventional sex symbols, a shrewd businesswoman, an ex-con, and made movies clear up to the age of 85?
She was, and this week’s blog is dedicated to a strong, single, curvy Mae West, who was the highest-paid woman in the world and led a life few know about.
Not deemed a “classic beauty,” she knew how to work it. Only 5’0”, Mae wore six-to-nine-inch heels (depending on the source). That gave her her signature hip “wiggle.” While women like Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo had willowy figures and smoldering gazes, Mae West was curvy and brash. She sang, she danced, and her one-line zingers were full of double entendres that she used from her old vaudeville days. She knew what looked good on her, and she never complained when she was literally sewn into every costume she wore.
She was a convicted felon, and she used that to her advantage. In 1926, Mae was arrested for writing, producing, and starring in a play in New York simply called Sex. Censors called on her to stop. She refused and was convicted of producing an immoral theatrical performance. She was given the choice of a $500 fine (about $6,800 today) or 10 days in jail. Shocking her family and fans, she chose jail time. She wanted the publicity and she was genuinely curious about prison life.
She had an atypical experience – she insisted on wearing her own silk undergarments, claiming she was allergic to the prison-issued undies. She also dined with the warden every night and was given VIP treatment by her fellow inmates. She recounted the her jail time with fondness in later interviews, and despite being a felon, she left jail more popular than ever, and people lined up around the block to see the latest plays she wrote and produced.
She played the Hollywood game – a man’s world – on her terms. And won. Mae starred in her first movie at the relatively late age of 39. She negotiated her own contracts and had a lot of leverage in rewriting the scripts she was sent.
She didn’t flinch even when confronted with a scandal – her husband (who she married at age 18 and while they never lived together, they never divorced) tried to extort her for thousands of dollars. This was at the height of her career in 1937. Mae refused to give into his blackmail, since her husband had remarried, making him a bigamist. She finally divorced him in 1943.
Mae was sexually liberated at a time women were supposed to conform. Her easy, breezy sexiness was never crude, with no swearing, just lots of bawdy jokes to keep audiences wanting more and declaring sexual liberation before that was even a thing.
Despite having only a third-grade education, she was smart and savvy. Mae wrote many of her own plays she performed in New York before she moved to L.A. in 1932. She drew on her experience from vaudeville and stock theater, and she knew how to write plays audiences loved. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was about sexually liberated women who fought for them men they loved, or they knew when to cut their losses and run.
She also wanted to learn everything she could about the business of filmmaking. Mae spent countless hours learning about lighting, camera angles, editing, and other aspects of film production at a time few women did.
Mae mostly retired from acting in the early 1940s, but her money wasn’t idle. She was a real estate investor, and she knew exactly where to buy land in the booming southern California real estate market, and that made her more money than she ever earned at the box office.
She took care of everyone she loved. Mae’s beloved mother died before her Hollywood career, but she brought her father, brother, and sister out to California with her. Her father had retired from being a private investigator, and Mae ensured he was financially independent, which was a rarity during the Great Depression. She got bit acting parts for her brother, Jack. When that didn’t pan out, she bought a ranch so he could train horses. Their sister lived there, too.
Though she never drove, she bought herself a new limo every year. She gave the old ones anonymously to local convents.
She also remembered her staff very generously in her will when she died in 1980 at the age of 87. She had a very small inner circle, but she loved her peeps and ensured they were cared for.
So many memorable quotes.
“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
“To err is human, but it feels divine.”
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
“I’m no model lady. A model is just an imitation of the real thing.”
“Cultivate your curves – they may be dangerous, but they won’t be avoided.”
“I believe it is better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.”
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
“I didn’t discover curves, I only uncovered them.”
“It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men.”
“I’ve been things and seen places.”
I hope this short blog entry gives you an idea of what a badass Mae West was. She was so much more than diamonds and one-liners. She was a playwright, producer, unconventional sex symbol, screenwriter, and real estate investor. She shattered glass ceilings and her legacy is felt in Hollywood to this day.
Who is your favorite old-timey Hollywood actress, and why? Comment below!